I often talk about how my education in the classics is sorely lacking; this applies across all spectrums and all genres. I was in my thirties when I began to appreciate John D. MacDonald, for example; I didn’t start reading Ross MacDonald until I was in my forties. There are any number of classic works of fiction I’ve not read, and I am sorely under-read in my own genre. I am trying to rectify that as I age; it’s, like almost everything else I do, a project.
I am not nearly as well read in spy thrillers as perhaps I should be; I certainly went through a Robert Ludlum phase (although I am not entirely sure that’s where Ludlum belongs–only rarely are his main characters, at least in the volumes I’ve read–actual spies), and over the last decade I’ve started reading Eric Ambler. I also gave, back in the day, both Helen MacInnes and Alistair MacLean a whirl; and of course, I’ve read some Ian Fleming–but not all. (I really want to reread Live and Let Die to see if it’s as racist as I remember; I also want to rewatch the film again–and not just because a lot of it was filmed in Louisiana; I want to see if the book’s racism carried over into the film, which I strongly suspect it did)
So, John Le Carre. I’ve never read his books nor seen anything adapted from one of them (other than the wonderful The Night Manager starring Tom Hiddleston; highly recommended, and now I need to read the book), but of course I’ve heard of him. His most famous book is probably The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I acquired a copy of it from somewhere at some point. I recently decided to give it a read–my attempt to improve my education in crime classics at work–and I finished it this morning.
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”
Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
“You can’t wait forever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.”
“No,” said Leamas, “it’s nearly dark now.”
“But you can’t wait forever; he’s nine hours over schedule.”
This is how the book opens, and it does draw the reader directly into the story; the action is already underway, and LeCarre masterfully choses this method–entering the story in progress, with dialogue–to draw the unwary reader into the story. The use of polizei and the year it was written gives the clue that this is very likely occurring in Germany, and most likely the divided city of Berlin. Alec Leamas, a British agent, is the main character of the story, and one of his spies on the other side–East Berlin/East Germany–has had his cover blown and is trying to make his escape to the west. As Leamas watches, the mission fails spectacularly and his final agent on the other side is shot to death by guards as he tries to make through from east to west. Leamas is tired of spying, tired of betrayal, tired of dealing with the worst aspects of international espionage and how it exposes the smallness of most people on either side of the capitalism/communism divide; he is alsi very tired of deaths that eventually mean nothing in the long run. Agents are merely pawns of their states, expendable and disposable. Brought back to England, he is informed that his counterpart in east German intelligence, who has been killing off his agents left and right, must be brought down, and his final job for British intelligence will involve deep cover and a plan that will inevitably lead to the Communists bringing their master intelligence agent, Mundt, down on their own as a traitor.
The Berlin Wall came down during my lifetime; 1989 to be exact, and its construction began the week before I was born. The division of Germany into two halves–one a democracy, the other a Communist autocracy–occurred after the utter defeat and collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945. The Berlin Wall was itself a symbol of the ideological divide between east and west; the cold war itself a world-wide struggle for hearts and minds that didn’t always go so well for the west–primarily because of the West’s determination to uphold Fascist dictatorships that violated the freedoms of its citizens repeatedly as bulwarks against Communism. It’s been thirty-one years since the Wall came down and Communism collapsed in most of the world, and there are at least two generations of Americans who have grown up without the the constant threat of the mushroom cloud’s shadow–yet the right’s constant portrayal of the left as communist/socialist/enemies of American freedoms and liberty persists to this day, and there are any number of American voters still alive (and voting) who will knee-jerk reflexively react to anything being labeled socialism or communism. The Republican party began their decades-long policy of red-baiting during the Truman administration, initially behind the demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Nixon was an acolyte of McCarthy’s (which should have been enough to disqualify him from public office thereafter); and it was under Nixon that the right began its gradually lurch toward authoritarianism which we see bearing fruit today.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is dramatically different from any other “international espionage/intrigue” spy novel I’ve read to date–and while LeCarre despised Ian Fleming’s work and often stated that he wrote his novel in reaction to the popularity of the Bond novels, the same moral ambiguity permeates both. Both Bond and Leamas are merely doing their jobs in both, and neither is particularly vested in ideology or politics or even nationalism. They are simply professionals, doing their jobs. LeCarre’s novel isn’t very action-packed, but it is written stylishly, and the suspense comes from whether or not Leamas will prevail in his task of bringing down an important figure in East German intelligence. Once the book got going-after an admittedly slow start–I simply couldn’t put it down, and now I am definitely interested in reading more of LeCarre’s fiction. It’s extremely well done, deeply cynical, and there are twists and turns that not only come as complete surprises–but really, shouldn’t have.
I highly recommend it.